Olio by Tyehimba Jess

Fix your eyes on the flex of these first-generation-freed voices: They coalesce in counterpoint, name nemeses, summon tongue to wit-ness. Weave you own chosen way between these voices...
— Tyehimba Jess, Olio

Olio stands for a hodgepodge, miscellaneous collection of literary or musical selections and, true to its name, that is what Tyehimba Jess so beautifully presents in this Pulitzer-winning poetry collection. This book blew my mind, and is probably the best thing these eyes of mine have read all year.

Cleverly, Jess takes real life characters - John William "Blind" Boone, Henry "Box" Brown, The Fisk Jubilee Singers, Scott Joplin, Millie and Christine McKoy, "Blind" Tom Wiggins and more - and presents their work like never before, in the imaginary lines of his poetry, inspired by their ragtime performances of musical, lyrical, physical feat. History and poetry intertwine perfectly here to present something like nothing I've ever before seen. 

Central to this narrative are the interviews of Julius Monroe Trotter, born 1895, as he retraces the final years of Scott Joplin, a leader of ragtime tunes, through the eyes of those who knew him. Trotter sends these interviews to Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois in 1927, alongside a letter to his sister, and disappears forever, last known to have joined the vaudeville. 

Between these excerpts are poems, billfolds, and drawings capturing the histories of these other notable escaped slaves, musicians and artists. In Jess's words, one discovers a piece of America in the late 19th and early 20th century all too easily neglected or forgotten. I found myself immersed in the magically crafted poems - read vertically, horizontally and diagonally- always with my iPhone in hand to check fact and fiction.

This Olio is a masterpiece. Dive into its rhythm, its wonder, its music, its magic, its heavy-hearted beat, its light-fingered melody. Remember history as Jess knows it.

What the wind, rain, and thunder said to Tom

Hear how sky opens its maw to swallow
Earth? To claim each being and blade and rock
with its spit? Become your own full sky. Own
every damn sound that struts through your ears.
Shove notes in your head till they bust out where
your eyes supposed to shine. Cast your lean
brightness across the world and folk will stare
when your hands touch piano. Bend our breath
through each fingertip uncurled and spread
upon the upright’s eighty-eight pegs.
Jangle up its teeth until it can tell
our story the way you would tell your own:
the way you take darkness and make it moan.
— Tyehimba Jess, Olio